What is Anxiety?
Living with anxiety is one of the most effective means of decreasing your ability to perform and execute at full potential. If you’re reading this article and suffer from anxiety or have in the past, then you know exactly where I’m coming from.
Like all other emotions, anxiety has a spectrum, feeling nervous prior to a big speech or sporting event is normal and can be used in your favor to achieve. It’s a natural response that serves a very important purpose in protecting us from potential threats, ensuring our survival. This is commonly referred to as the fight or flight response, a complex biochemical response to perceived danger. It involves many hormones and neurotransmitters but is especially driven by epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine[R1] and is modulated by your nervous system. It’s important to recognize that this response is utilized when needed and turned off once the threat has been removed, but what happens when you cannot disengage appropriately (more on this later)?
At the other end of the spectrum, when anxiety becomes unmanageable, just the thought of coping with it leads to additional worry. This behavior can spiral out of control, even the most trivial interactions can lead to inner turmoil or an exaggerated response (e.g. overreacting to the mistakes of loved ones or physical violence). It’s an unhealthy state that folks spend hours or days in -some live in the flight or fight response all the time. The purpose of this article is to give a brief background on the science of anxiety, bringing awareness to the patterns dragging you down and what you can start doing immediately to reverse this state of mind.
Understanding Anxiety – Types of Anxiety Disorders, Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety
Stress is an essential (and for the most part, unavoidable) element in our lives, it can drive change, motivation, and diligence. It usually results from external factors and can stimulate a diverse set of emotions such as sadness, worry, anger, even happiness for some. This is a key distinction between stress and anxiety, whereas the latter is an internalized response that encompasses states of fear and apprehension to the point where it negatively impacts relationships, academics, and career to name a few. It can manifest without any perceivable stimuli or threat and is most dangerous when it becomes your identity. Three common examples of anxiety disorders are listed below:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – Dealing with an internal anxious state consistently for months on end
- Panic Disorder – Recurring and sudden anxiety driven attacks, involving significant autonomic nervous system output[R2]
- Social Anxiety Disorder – Intense fear / phobia of social or performance related situations (e.g. public speaking)
These disorders may be the consequence of specific types of anxiety. Three types discerned by Freud are listed below:
- Objective Anxiety – This stems from fear, where there is a real, tangible threat to your physical or mental wellbeing. This puts your ego at risk by an external event rather than internal turmoil or rumination.
- Neurotic Anxiety – This is an internal form of anxiety, it occurs when there is conflict between your id (innate instinctive impulses of the mind) and your ego. Like your ego controlling sexual desires stimulated by your id. Anxiety comes from the fear that your ego may lose this battle.
- Moral Anxiety – This is the battle between your superego and your ego. The anxiety stems from a fear of violating your own moral code or accepted social norms, leading to guild or shame.
Symptoms for all three overlap quite a bit; I’m sure you are familiar with these symptoms if you suffer from any of the aforementioned states. They include:
- Intense sensation of fear
- Heavy breathing / fast heart rate
- Digestive disruption, nausea, or diarrhea
- Sweating, shaking, trembling, and / or blushing
- Inability to focus, concentrate, or perform
So, what could be going wrong?
These are the endogenous brain chemicals that illicit a specific response when they bind to specialized receptors. Regardless of the root-cause(s) that may have triggered an imbalance, it becomes your innate biochemical recipe to various external or internal stimuli.
Epinephrine and norepinephrine, also referred to as [nor]adrenaline, along with the hormone cortisol[R1] are released when faced with stressful stimuli. They are utilized to help prepare your body to react, raising your heart rate, dilating your pupils[R3], and causing increased blood flow to your muscles, while reducing that available to your digestive organs and skin. The purpose here is to either fight or flee in a short burst, however if the norepinephrine remains heightened, you will continue to remain in this state of fear unnecessarily.
Guess what happens to your digestion long term? When resources are taken away for other parts of the body, your digestion will begin to slow down and suffer; irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), functional dyspepsia, or peptic ulcer disease are a few of the common disorders observed with emotional stress[R4].
Next is the seesaw balance between excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate and the inhibitory gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA)[R5]. Glutamate is needed for learning, attention, and quickly processing information; intelligence is aptly associated with this neurotransmitter. On the other end, GABA is inhibitory, is acts to reduce the activity of neurons that it binds to. This reduces excitation in the mind and promotes calmness. It can directly attenuate the excitatory impact of glutamate, epinephrine and norepinephrine.
Therefore it’s beneficial for someone with anxiety to be producing adequate amounts of GABA to support a more restful and controlled state[R6]. Optimizing this system may provide some relief for these symptoms; note, GABA is available in supplement form but cannot pass the blood-barrier when consumed, however there are other ways to enhance the efficacy of this system (see recommendations at the end of this article). Also worth considering, glutamate and GABA are built by the same raw materials within the body. Primarily glutamine, whether one gets produced or the other is complex; one linkage is that in a state of inflammation, we tend to produce more glutamate. Gut biome is another important contributor, strains such as Lactobacillus rhamnosus have been shown to promote increased GABA production[R7].
Psychology of Anxiety
Talk about a complex topic, this one can go deep but we’ll focus on a few factors. Overwhelming stressors can drastically change how you perceive your environment. For example, if you repeatedly fear interaction with a specific individual or situation, your brain will wire itself for that response. What I mean by this is, you will have the same biochemical response in the presence of that person / situation and similar ones. This could be interactions with your boss, a former lover, a police officer or an event such as public speaking.
The crushing notion that the result of these interactions may lead to failure, embarrassment, and / or physical injury are all linked with pain. Your body appropriately prepares you to fight or run, if this continues to occur, then your response to that situation will always be exaggerated. Additionally, if you have to interact with / perform in these anxiety inducing scenarios all the time, it will become your innate response to almost all other stimuli in life. This sets the foundation for anxiety, whether you do a great job hiding it or wear it on your sleeve, it can make your daily routine dreadful.
Dealing with Anxiety – Bringing it all together
Anxiety can make you miserable and negatively impact your relationship with those closest to you. However these symptoms are treatable but require effort to bring you back to baseline. I like the approach combining cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) techniques[R8] with nutrition and supplementation.
CBT teaches an individual ways to assess and perceive the world around them differently than the usual patterns which worsen their anxiety. The intent is to change the way one reacts to fearful or anxiety inducing situations. You can train yourself on basic CBT techniques, such as convincing yourself that whatever interaction you are perceiving as a threat, is not. Do this by repeatedly imagining yourself facing the threat and having a completely normal or successful interaction, every time.
For example, this can be used prior to public speaking: repeatedly imagine yourself getting up to the podium and engaging the audience with value-added information. Obviously preparation and practice are required, however constant visualization of success can greatly attenuate the fear of not being able to perform in front of a specific group. This type of life narration will embed the success into your mind; it removes the crux of anxiety, which is, anticipating pain for events which have not yet occurred.
It’s also very helpful to actively address what’s causing the anxiety. Is it something health related, vanity? Struggling with hairloss, aging, weight gain, skin disorders (e.g. rosacea, acne, psoriasis)? Poor career choice? Abusive relationship? Break the pattern of coping and do something about it; there are more resources available at your fingertips than ever before. Start working immediately to take back control, self-confidence will naturally return on its own.
Do what works for other people, start searching the internet for message boards, blogs, or videos and see how they accomplish what you are looking to do. Role-modeling success is very important.
Another technique that works (initially) is to avoid whatever is causing the heightened anxious states, be it a person, job, or situation. I say initially because running indefinitely might not be a pragmatic option, however it may temporarily be enough to get back to baseline. Once your mind is able to process information in a more relaxed state, better decision making, rational and logical thinking will return. By doing so, you’ll be better suited to deal with your emotions using clear logic.
Perhaps there may be some genetic susceptibility to the neurotransmitters and / or hormones associated with this state or a reflection of maternal distress during gestation[R9]. However, that does not mean it has to become you.
Let’s take a moment to think about that, going as far back as you can remember, were you always anxiety prone? Regardless how far back you have to go to remember being in an anxious-free state or try remembering your interactions with someone you are extremely comfortable with; that is the state you need to strive for.
Now, keep your back straight, breathe deeply, and point your chest out. Take back control.
Try the simple techniques discussed within this article and recommendations below.
Anxiety Relief Recommendations
Here’s a quick one that you can implement immediately, conscious breathing through the 4-7-8 Breathing Technique. Keep in mind, breathing and heartrate are linked, slow your breathing and your heartrate will follow accordingly. I love this technique prior to any public speaking. Summary below:
- Breathe in slowly for 4 seconds
- Hold that breath for 7 seconds
- Slowly breathe out for 8 seconds
- That’s it! Repeat as needed until you feel your heartrate return to normal.
Supplement with the following:
- High potency Fish Oil – At least 2g daily
- Magnesium Citrate at 400mg or Magnesium L-Threonate at 144mg daily
- Ashwagandha Extract – 200mg daily
- L-Theanine – 200mg daily
- Lithium Orotate – 5mg to 10mg daily (elemental lithium); research indicates it has an anxiolytic effect[R10] and modulates of levels of glutamate in the brain[R11]. Additionally, there is considerable anecdotal evidence of Lithium Orotate’s anxiolytic benefits across the web.
- Avoid excess simple carbohydrates
- Limit caffeine intake to the minimal effective dose. Caffeine is a stimulant and may trigger excess norepinephrine activity[R12].
Exercise + Meditation
- Moderate weight training and cardio 2 – 3 times a week, important to stay consistent. Great for self-confidence, which is a monumental aid when tackling anxiety.
- Early morning Mindful Meditation[R13]
Alkalizing Hot Baths
- Fill a bath with hot water, we are looking to make you sweat. Add 2 cups of Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate), 1 cup baking soda and 1 cup hydrogen peroxide. Try to keep much of your body well submerged; I typically do 30 minutes, of which 20 I spend on mindful meditation (mediation music helps).
- Note: This is a great way to clean out your pores and alkalize acidic toxins that are released from your skin (e.g. fatty acids)
- Once complete, take a 5 minute cold shower to rinse, close your pores, and feel vibrant
Daily Cold Therapy
- Cold Showers – Well, start with a hot shower to clean out your pores, scalp, and hair then finish with a very cold 5 minute rinse. The energy reaped from cold showers make them well worth it, additionally it’s helpful for inflammation and promotes both heat and cold-shock proteins[R14].